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Remember when Zack de la Rocha was relevant?

Published in Blog, Culture Bully. Tags: .

With memories of Rage Against the Machine’s brilliance in mind, few names were as irritatingly elusive throughout the Aughts as Zack de la Rocha’s. For years on end, word of any new material from the Rage Against the Machine vocalist didn’t simply raise brows, but set off fireworks amongst the media and fans alike. As time passed, rumors escalated about what would become of de la Rocha’s mysterious solo debut, and as the list of potential all-star collaborators grew, so too did the hype surrounding one of the most anticipated albums of the decade. Names such as El-P, DJ Shadow, Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, DJ Premier, DJ Muggs, Roni Size, Trent Reznor & ?uestlove of the Roots all came up over the years in terms of who de la Rocha was working with, but unfortunately little to any of that material actually saw the light of day.

While it’s rumored that Trent Reznor produced some 20 tracks for de la Rocha, only one was ever released: “We Want It All,” which appeared on the supplement to Michael Moore’s 2004 film, Songs and Artists that Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11. In fact, aside from de la Rocha’s One Day as a Lion EP with one-time Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore, and a couple of cameo spots on tracks by such artists as Roni Size/Reprazent, Saul Williams & Blackalicious, little original material has actually been released by the vocalist since The Battle of Los Angeles.

Last year Sole Sides dropped a previously unreleased collaboration from DJ Shadow’s 2006 Outsider sessions. The track is good, and certainly better than most of the material that actually made it onto the album, but as with “We Want It All,” de la Rocha seems to have been worked into a pre-casted mold with the track. In speaking to the LA Times in 2008, he touched on this somewhat, “When I was working with Trent and Shadow, I felt that I was going through the motions.” This isn’t to say that the two tracks are bad—they aren’t, by any means—but they don’t compare to something that preceded them: the song which remains the best offering from Zack de la Rocha during the entire decade, “March of Death.”

Previously discussing the song for Prefix in 2008, I wrote, “Distributed for free via MarchofDeath.com, the song focused de la Rocha’s anger and frustration into roughly four minutes of pounding beats.” Lyrically the song is aimed at the Bush administration, calling the President a “Texas furer [sic],” and lashing out, “Who let the cowboy on the saddle/He don’t know a missile from a gavel/Para terror troopin’ flippin’ loops of death upon innocent flesh/But I’m back in the cipher my foes and friends, with a verse and a pen.” Whether it have to do with the aggressive beat or de la Rocha’s continuously sharp flow, but “March of Death” remains one of my favorite tracks from the decade. My feelings don’t necessarily reflect those of the masses though. The American Prospect‘s Chaweon Koo reflected on the song, focusing on the weight behind its verbal punch, calling it a “lyrical letdown” and adding that “‘March of Death’ seems more like a knee-jerk reaction to George W. Bush’s Iraq War than a thoughtful punch to the face.”

In the dying moments of the 2008 documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Thompson’s ex-wife looked back on his life and reflected, “I think this is a time when Hunter Thompson could make a difference in this country.” Moments later Jimmy Buffett—of all people—added his thoughts, “He could wield a pretty effective sword against what’s going on right now.” Carrying a similar tone, in his 2007 essay, “An Open Letter to Zack de la Rocha,” Esquire‘s Jason Notte wrote,

“After a summer spent flipping off cops and raising a ruckus at the 2000 party conventions, you totally bailed… just as the Bush administration came into power. Then September 11 went down, Clear Channel yanked Rage songs off the air, and you? Nothing. After spending seven years sending your fans into street fights with Howitzers, you left them unarmed on D-Day… And when the U.S. went into war in Iraq based on sketchy intelligence and utter ignorance of the inherent religious and ethnic conflicts that could arise during an ensuing occupation? That Web-only release of March of Death was more than adequate. The thirty-two people who heard the song were moved. Why should you use the deplorable Capitalist machine to broadcast your position to millions when you can do the technological equivalent of handing out fliers?… With minorities being treated like fifteenth-class citizens during Hurricane Katrina, habeas corpus being tossed aside like Kim Kardashian’s underwear when a camera turns on, Guantanamo Bay being used as a kennel, Enron mugging employees for their life savings while folding in disgrace, Jack Abramoff playing Texas Hold ‘Em with the concept of Congressional ethics, Mark Foley hitting on anything that looked like a mid-’90s Lukas Haas, George Allen reintroducing “macaca” to the national lexicon…”

Unlike Thompson, Zack de la Rocha is obviously alive and well. A little over a week ago he and Jon Theodore took to the stage for the duo’s first ever live performances as One Day as a Lion (which were generally well-received: Spinner‘s Steve Baltin went as far as saying that they “have the potential to be a powerful force in rock”). But for a decade he has had the ability and opportunity to step up and continue the standard that he set with Rage Against the Machine. And with the talent that was supposedly joining him to produce this music, it looked as though he was willing to claim his place on the front lines for years to come; no matter how misguided some of his causes might be. As a vocalist, activist, and poet, Zack de la Rocha will continue to be revered as one of the strongest voices of his generation, and the argument could be made that he never stopped doing his best to make sure that many injustices are being addressed and corrected (which he should still be applauded for). But even if Rage releases a new album, One Day as a Lion pushes on, or a solo record sees the light of day, he will never be able to wield his sword with the same force that he once could. In that sense, “what could have been” takes on a whole new meaning.

[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]